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December 16, 2015

Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee research (Image 13)

These chimpanzee fecal samples collected by researchers from Drexel University in Lobeke National Park are ready for processing to maintain DNA for genetic analyses back in the U.S.

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Recent research by a team from Drexel University and supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) revealed new insights about the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti), including their population genetics, evolutionary history and habitat ecology.

Cameroon is the only country where the ranges of two chimpanzee subspecies converge, making it an ideal location to study the factors that create and maintain genetic diversity among populations.

Initially the researchers sought to understand the biogeographic barriers separating the Nigeria-Cameroon chimps from their neighbors to the south, the Central African chimpanzees. But findings from the study are much more complex.

For example, the team found that Cameroon chimps likely speciated as a result of natural selection, and not simply due to geographic isolation across the Sanaga River as previously thought. They also found evidence of an additional distinct gene pool of Nigeria-Cameroon chimps in the savanna-woodland mosaic of central Cameroon. This savanna-woodland habitat is very different from the wet rainforest habitats occupied in western and southern Cameroon, suggesting the possibility that chimps in Cameroon and Nigeria adapted to their habitats and that is what has driven their speciation.

With this in mind, the researchers theorized if the chimps really were adapted to their habitats, then it would be expected that each population would occupy divergent niches within an ecosystem. The team collected environmental data from satellite imagery, then modeled the suitable habitat of each population of chimps and found that indeed this was the case.

Research by the team has also shown that habitat variation is much more important in shaping genetic diversity in Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees living in both the rainforest and the savanna-woodland mosaic than it is for Central African chimpanzees.

The researchers wondered: If environmental variation and differences in habitat have shaped these populations over time, then how might climate change alter their suitable habitat in the future? After projecting models for each chimpanzee population under climate scenarios through to the end of this century, they determined that the chimp's habitat would likely deteriorate in the near future. The Nigeria-Cameroon chimps living in the savanna-woodland mosaic habitat in central Cameroon are under the most immediate threat of climate change, and may completely lose their habitat within our lifetime.

These findings are very important for the conservation of the Nigeria-Cameroon chimps. West-Central Africa is currently undergoing rapid economic growth and chimps in this region are already under constant threat from habitat loss from industrialized agriculture, illegal hunting and wildlife trafficking. Comprehensive and proactive conservation planning is therefore key to ensuring their survival.

[Text used by permission from the blog "What can chimpanzee tracking tell you about climate change?" by Paul Sesink Clee. Sesink Clee was part of the Drexel team that conducted this research and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the university studying disease ecology and climate change in wildlife across equatorial Africa.]

[Research supported by NSF grants BCS 07-55823 and OISE 12-43524.]

To learn more, see the NSF News From the Field story Most endangered chimpanzees have complex evolutionary past, perilous future. (Date image taken: 2014; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: Dec. 16, 2015) [Image 13 of 17 related images. See Image 14.]

Credit: Paul Sesink Clee

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